Father’s Day isn’t always a celebration. For some, it’s a day to reflect on times gone by. So today, this one goes out to those who’ve lost their father, stepfather, or father figure. I see you. I am you. And you’re not alone.
As children, we don’t want to believe that death is real. Every day, we grab life by the tail. We live to play, to learn; we track how tall we’ve grown; we laugh, and ultimately we learn to mourn. And through it all, if we’re lucky, our parents are there. And it seems like they will always be there. But it was at 11-years-old that I began to learn that, no matter how old you are, when the death of a parent hits… it’s just surreal.
It’s not that death was a foreign concept to me. When I was confronted with death for the first time, it stared at me from a cage. My mom’s parakeets would sing merrily all day long. But on some days, I’d wake up and there they’d lie: a single pastel lump on a sheet of outdated newspaper. When I bore witness to the first parakeet fatality, I remember it’s eyelids fascinating me. I’d never even thought about a bird’s eyelids before that moment. Translucent white, like a wet sheet of rice paper, the bird’s eyelids stared at me more intently than it’s eyes ever did in life.
“Circle of life,” Mom said, shaking me from my shock. Immediately, I was determined that this poor perished parakeet’s story wouldn’t end at the bottom of a brightly painted wire cage. Like the end of a storybook before bed, the story continued in my head and I put it into action with gusto. I lifted “Mr. Parakeet” gently in my hands, then neatly wrapped it in a paper towel sarcophagus. I laid it (and every deceased parakeet thereafter) to rest in a sepulcher I fashioned in the corner of our yard. No matter how many we had, they were all unnamed. So when crafting their gravesite, I’d make up names for them — “Rosita”, because she was pink, “Sol” because he was yellow — and inscribe their new identities onto two popsicle sticks made into a cross with my Elmer’s glue. Alone kneeling in the corner of the yard with dirt under my fingernails, I’d bury them with a kiss and a prayer coupled with a moment of silence. And there their eyes would rest.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise I treated death with such ceremony. My Dad was dying for most of my childhood, and as often as I could, I’d get close to him and examine his features — his skin, reddened by radiation treatments, his long grey hair…but mostly, his crystal blue eyes. Though I quietly feared the moment he would eventually die, I never imagined what it would be like to see, until a parakeet showed me how.
When he was alive, Dad would get pretty sleepy from all his medications. “I’m not sleeping,” he’d say, “I’m just resting my eyes.” Just as I’d visit my dad in his moments of rest, I’d visit the parakeets from time to time. Climbing down from the nearby tree I’d make sure to say hello, leaning down to read their cross having forgotten the name I’d given them. I wanted their existence to be acknowledged, even if their merry song had long been silenced.
A few years passed and the pastel colors that preoccupied by mind faded to shadows and stoic figures crowding our home on an early Friday morning. It wasn’t real. It felt like I walked onto a dark stage in the middle of a play. I didn’t know the script, but knew the story. I wished I could take his whole body in my tiny hands the way I did those parakeets. But even though his emaciated body was just as limp as those delicate little birds, his eyes were still open. So I remained there as long as I could, looking into his crystal blue eyes, perched on my knees.
After my Mom lead me into the room, the door closed slowly behind me and enclosed us in what just hours before was his bedroom, but which now felt like a funerary tomb. The pale pink sheets my Mom picked out for them were now the thin veils of his deathbed.
With every stroke of his hands on mine, I felt the grief mixing with the guilt and just couldn’t stop saying “I’m sorry.” As children, we always feel like we can do more, even in the face of death. And in my mind, I didn’t do enough. And now I just felt stuck in this play I never asked to be a part of. As sincere as these tender final moments were, they all felt so staged. Who had planned this? How could this happen? Who forgot to tell me that parakeets have eyelids?
Years passed and manhood came swiftly. Just as one end came, a beginning had begun, but none of these transitions held any sense of ceremony. From age 11 to 12 and 13, each digit’s shift signaled a new act. Act 1, the tragedy; followed by Act 2, the moment of truth; and finally Act 3, the new start. I felt like the story of my life was working in reverse. I didn’t just lose my Dad. I’d lost control.
When the storybook ended, what was left was remorse — “I should’ve treated him kinder”; regret — “I should’ve tried harder to save him”; and shame — “I’m a bad son.” With growth, playtime gave way to a stage show, and had now grown into a sick, private game of emotional self-flagellation that felt more real that anything I’d ever experienced up to that point. And I guess that’s why shame could thrive within me for so long after his death — I created the perfect conditions for it. Burying it in the corners of my mind, there I was, gently handling my shame, kissing it, and burying it deep. The only this I forgot to do was name it. But the sad truth is that, as children, we lack the emotional vocabulary to talk about shame, grief, guilt, and loss. It’s only in hindsight that I can see my personal childhood truth was that I had prepared for this. I set myself up to be the savior with paper towels, a couple of popsicle sticks, and some Elmer’s Glue. But what’s a savior with no one to save?
The answer would lie in over 2 decades of soul searching that took from my hometown in Mexico to the U.S., India, Thailand, Turkey, and all over Kenya, thought by many to be the origin of all human life. In that time I’ve found myself on my knees in prayer many times, speaking languages I knew and others I knew nothing of. But the message has always been the same: know thyself. And that’s the gift. We who have looked death square in the eyes have the chance to know ourselves — to truly speak on our relationship to life and death is a gift. We can see the truth so many of us human miss and that’s this: no one ever really dies. Life becomes death becomes life again and again. And it is still universal truth that has liberated me! It’s set me free to see that there is nothing without an opposite to look after it.
Now, I can save with certainly that where there is war, you can find peace. Where there is hate, you can find love. And most importantly, where there is fear — we can find freedom.
So for anyone today who’s missing their Dad or looking back with regret, know this: Shame can be named. Guilt can be uncaged. And love never sleeps; it’s just resting it’s eyes.
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Originally published on Medium.